Beyond ‘survival’

Remember when the days were long

And rolled beneath a deep blue sky

Didn’t have a care in the world

With mommy and daddy standin’ by

But “happily ever after” fails

And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales

This is the end

This is the end of the innocence

Don Henley, The End of the Innocence


Today marks my transition from being 26 to being 27. It marks six years since I asked my father to sing Don Henley’s song ‘the End of the Innocence’ at my 21st birthday party. At that time it may have been an odd choice of song – a rather morbid message going forward into adulthood. But in the last six years it has continued to play over and over in my mind.

The song speaks of the crumbling of a safe, protected world. For me the song captures a lot of what I have felt in the past few years and particularly how I have felt since being raped. The song speaks to my feeling that the life I had occupied before the rape was over, that I would never be the same person that I was before I was raped (both to myself and to others), and that I would never get back the view of the world, the innocence, that I had held before the 30th of October 2015.

These feelings have filled much of the past year.  On reflection, 26 was predominantly taken up by a constant battle to ‘survive’, or rather to do a particular kind of ‘survival’. I fought frantically to recapture the version of myself that I had been pre-rape – in my intimate relationships, at work and when I looked into the mirror. A lot of the time it felt like I was succeeding. I carried on with the research and the writing that I had been doing before the rape, I maintained my intimate relationships with my friends, my partner and my family, and I was able to look unflinchingly back at my reflection. Being able to carry on as I had done before was immensely comforting and it allowed me to feel in control of my life again.

In many ways this period mirrors what is referred to as the ‘outward adjustment’ phase of recovery. According to the You & Rape information booklet : ‘In this phase, most survivors try to carry on with their lives as normal. To anyone looking at you from the outside, you may seem to be coping. You might even feel this way yourself. You need to go through this phase to reassure yourself that you can cope. During this phase, you test your ability to survive the experience’ (p.42).

But this kind of survival left very little space for me to process what I had lost, what had been fundamentally changed and ripped away from me by being raped. I was so busy surviving and carrying on that I did not have time to mourn, or to rage or to just be still.

I remember one day breaking down in front of a friend about something unrelated to the rape. I became completely overwhelmed and sobbed hysterically for about 20 minutes. She gently stroked my back and said: ‘I think this is the first time you have allowed yourself to cry all year’.

I have struggled to allow these kinds of moments. I think this is partly because of the dominant narrative of ‘rape survivor’ that I have tried to embody. Even before I was raped, the term ‘survivor’ was deeply inscribed in my subconscious. Since training as a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis in 2013, I have adopted the use of this term.  After the 30th of October 2015 I automatically appropriated this term when describing what had happened to me.

The preference for using this term is outlined in the You & Rape booklet: ‘we use the word “survivor” to indicate any person – man or woman – who has been through a rape and lived. We use this term not only because many victims do not survive and are killed during a rape, but also because many fear that this will happen even if the rapist does not intend to kill his victim. We also use this term because it does not feel helpful for any person to be labelled a victim – it makes that person seem more weak, helpless and passive than she or he may already be feeling. In fact, that person may be very strong, resourceful and resilient’ (p.3).

I am not for one minute denying the importance or usefulness of the term ‘rape survivor’. This way of seeing myself has allowed me to retain hope in my capacity to live beyond the rape. It has given me something beyond the helplessness, the passivity and the powerlessness of being a ‘victim’.

But this term has also prescribed a certain way of experiencing and processing being raped. The term ‘survivor’ inherently implies growth and transforming the rape into something ‘positive’.

Michelle Hattingh in her book, I’m the girl who was raped, speaks of her own discomfort with the term survivor. She says: ‘I absolutely, positively, loathe the term “rape survivor”. Survival to me, is a verb. It is something you choose to do. I did not survive being raped. I was raped. I am neither a victim nor a survivor. I feel like I have become rape’ (p. 112).

I know now that I was frightened of relinquishing the little bit of control that I had regained in the aftermath of the rape. I was frightened of delving into the deep, dark, overwhelming hole filled with memories, shadows and horrifying, shattering pain. I am still afraid.

But I have been able to say to myself at least once in the past year: ‘what happened to you is immensely terrible’. I have been able to cry and say ‘I am afraid that I will never be the person I was before’. I have been able to admit that I am different, not more or less, but different from the person I was before I was raped.

In beginning to acknowledge these shifts I feel that I am becoming more myself, or rather a version of myself that I want to be. I am not merely ‘surviving’ but rather I am re-learning the process of ‘being’ – with all its inconsistencies, instability and vulnerability.

So today, on my 27th birthday, I wish to acknowledge what has come before, and want to also reach out to a place beyond ‘survival’.


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